Of the eight studies done to date on the effects of overnight care by non-resident parents on very young children, seven of them show either no adverse effects or that overnights are associated with improved outcomes. That leaves the 2010 study by McIntosh, Smyth, Kelaher and Wells. To say that it’s a seriously flawed piece of work is to put it mildly. That it’s become the touchstone for the anti-dad crowd to continue their efforts to marginalize fathers in the lives of their children comes as no surprise first because the study can easily be read to do just that and second because the anti-dad crowd’s never much cared for intellectual scruples.
The study, that many call the “pre-schooler study,” was conducted for the office of the Australian Attorney General, and was based on data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC). Now, the LSAC has a good bit of heft to it, comprised as it is of data gathered from some 10,000 children. But McIntosh, et al didn’t use all those kids or all that data. Indeed, constructing their study as they did, some samples they used had as few as 14 children in them. Most tellingly, “the negative data on which the woozle (that children experience problems with attachment to a parent if they have too many overnights with the other parent) is based came from some of the smallest samples in the study.”
And, speaking of the study’s samples, they turn out to bear no relationship to the general population. As Dr. Linda Nielsen points out, “Most of these parents had never been married to one another (90% for infants and 60% for toddlers) and 30% of the infants’ parents had never even lived together. This means the findings should not be generalized to the general population of divorced parents.” So, in addition to everything else, the findings of the McIntosh study, even if they had validity, turn out to be useless in any but the narrowest of situations. They can’t be applied parents generally or to divorced parents or to those who’ve lived together for long.
For that proposition, the study is entirely worthless, and it gets close to that status for others.
Worse, despite the large population of children in the LSAC, McIntosh, et al simply failed to compare certain groups. For example, as Nielsen points out, “this study never compared the children who never overnighted to the children who only occasionally overnighted. That is, the study never addressed the question: Is occasional overnighting better or worse than never overnighting?” For that proposition, the study is entirely worthless, and it gets close to that status for others.
For example, the study takes as a given “that infants form a “primary” attachment to only one parent and later form a “secondary” attachment to their other parent.” To say the least, that’s a very doubtful assertion. It’s contradicted by considerable social science on the issue that Warshak, et al detail in his paper, but McIntosh and colleagues went ahead and assumed it anyway.
Still worse, McIntosh, et al decided to define “shared care” completely differently than do the rest of social scientists who study this issue. For most such scientists, “shared care” means a minimum of 35% to 40% parenting time for each parent. But inexplicably, for McIntosh and her fellow researchers, it meant as little as five nights per month with the non-resident parent, or about 16.5% of parenting time. Why they changed the definition so many social scientists work with as a matter of course remains a mystery.
Worst of all, the authors used six measures to determine whether a child was being adversely affected by overnights with dad, and four of them have never been validated as actually reflecting adverse consequences. Really, that’s what they did. So McIntosh, et al looked at “irritability, persistence (at a particular task), wheezing, and wariness/watchfulness about the mother’s where-abouts” to measure whether or not a child was stressed by overnighting with its father. The problem is that, no one else had ever used those to measure what McIntosh, et al sought to measure. They’d been validated for other purposes, but not for that. The researchers simply made them up for the purpose of evaluating the stress, or lack thereof, on children of overnights.
That alone renders the study essentially meritless. No one can say a particular type of behavior evidences stress in an infant unless the behavior has been independently shown to indicate that. But on at least one of the McIntosh group’s measures, their conclusions may in fact be the exact opposite of what they ought to be.
The idea that a child’s watchfulness, i.e. its tendency to keep an eye on its mother, indicates stress on the child’s part was invented out of whole cloth by McIntosh, et al. But watchfulness has been validated as an indicator of another type of behavior — readiness to begin talking. As Nielsen points out, watchfulness by a pre-verbal child has been shown to indicate “that the infant has more highly developed ways of communicating and is readier to begin talking.”
So, in McIntosh’s study, children with frequent overnights exhibited greater watchful behavior and to the researchers, that indicated heightened stress even though the test had never been validated for that. What that behavior did indicate was that the children with frequent overnights were in fact more advanced in their communication skills than were the children with fewer overnights. In other words, contrary to McIntosh et al’s claims, overnights, at least on that measure were beneficial to the kids. Needless to say, the researchers didn’t mention the fact and instead claimed the opposite.
Not content with claiming a single measure indicated children’s stress when it doesn’t, the researchers moved on to others. For example, wheezing. Mothers were asked a single question about whether their child wheezed more than four times a week. “The LSAC researchers had used this question as part of a scale to assess health or sleep problems,” but McIntosh, et al decided, quite without foundation that wheezing meant stress and that stress came from overnights. Indeed, at least one study, characteristically unmentioned by McIntosh, found the opposite to be true.
The same held true for two other measures — irritability and persistence at a task — the researchers used to claim that children with frequent overnights experienced greater stress than those with fewer or none.
In short, the irritability and persistence scales were not validated measures for assessing infant stress, or developmental problems, or emotional regulation difficulties.
As Nielsen points out, irritability can result from virtually anything and lack of persistence from ADHD. But none of that prevented McIntosh, et al from claiming that heightened irritability and lower persistence were indicators of stress and that stress came from overnights with dad.
By now it should be clear that the pre-schooler study is essentially useless as a guide to anything, much less establishing policy on parenting time following divorce or separation. As many social scientists have pointed out since its publication, it’s simply too flawed and its data too ambiguous to make it worth much in any context. But in the three plus years since its publication, it’s been anything but the doorstop it qualifies to be. Unlike its more scrupulous fellows in the field of overnights for young children, the pre-schooler study swept the world of family law and became the Bible on the subject for judges, lawyers, custody evaluators, mediators and the like. It shouldn’t have, but it did.
And that’s a story for my next post